Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Gardening Resolutions, 2011

Well, after reviewing how my gardening resolutions went for 2010, it's time to make some new ones! Without further ado...

1. Define the borders. In my (understandable) focus on plants, I have neglected to do much that really defines the gardens from the yard. With the exception of the wooden bars (or whatever these might technically be called) that were here from the previous owners, I have no hardscaping.

Digging a well-defined separation between yard and garden in the front would look nice, but digging is such an awful chore in this clay that I think fencing would be better, or at least easier. And for the new south border, rocks would complement the naturalistic look. I think some definition would literally set my gardens apart.

(Look past the lovely camassias and you'll notice this ill-defined border abruptly becomes yard.)

2. Fix this other @!$# border. This north border has been driving me crazy for years now! The tulips last year were lovely and I labored through planting about 40 more this fall. Inexplicably, the nectaroscordums seem happy here and I added 10 more of those too. But what else?! The shrub search was derailed when I killed the Canadian hemlock, the border in part shade, far from the hose (and hence always dry), and despite my best efforts at soil amendment this border is still holding tons of lava rocks from the abuse it suffered under the previous owners.

(But what else besides tulips?!)

My plans have changed at least ten times in the past year. I'm resolving to put something resembling a real garden here, likely with some sturdy prairie/savanna natives that can withstand the harsh conditions. We'll see...

3. Clean up the composting operation. I was very proud of myself for making actual compost this year! It took a long time but the sweltering summer did help me produce some lovely compost that immediately went in the above-mentioned problem border. Now I have my humble plastic tote filled again and I've made a pile next to it in which to dump scraps and leaves while the load in the tote decomposes. But this is amateurish and messy. Luckily, when I received my Troy Bilt 3090 XP, it came on a huge wooden skid that is now sitting against our house. It is the perfect material for building some boxes with chicken wire that will really class up the composting around here!

So this year I'm sticking with just three resolutions. Since I couldn't quite come through on four in 2010, I think it's wise to stay focused this year. Informally, I'm also resolving to be better about blogging. Work and life have kept me from reading and writing in the garden blogosphere as much as I would like, and I really want to try to improve on that.

So how about you? Any gardening resolutions for 2011? Happy New Year everyone!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Resolutions Reviewed

The detritus of Christmas is being swept away and I am already fully engaged in planning for next year's garden. Pots of forced hyacinths will be coming indoors at the end of the week and seed starting is just around the corner, but before jumping in to 2011 I wanted to reflect on my gardening adventures in 2010.

Last year at this time I made some gardening resolutions, in lieu of any serious resolutions that I would not be likely to achieve. Looking back on those has been rather amusing to me. How did I do?

My first resolution was to mulch frequently...well, not so much in practice. I did manage to get the front bed mulched by midsummer (was it June? July? Either way it was later than I would have preferred). Of course, once I had finished putting down the mulch I was looking over my handiwork and I exclaimed "I always forget how much better it looks with mulch!"

(This was taken in August, so there was mulch by then at least.)

I never did manage to get the back borders mulched and I've deplored my failure to mulch the vegetable garden numerous times already. So, I would say in 2010 I did mulch, but "frequently," certainly not. 0 for 1.

My second resolution was to plant a Japanese maple. Ha! Ha! This was a complete failure! I was seduced by a dwarf Canadian hemlock that I picked up at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show. I later killed this tree by letting it get too dry in its container. (The idea was to nurse it along during the spring and summer because it was a very small seedling and then plant it in the fall. You know what they say about the best laid plans...) I would still love a Japanese maple or even another shrub because this is the problem border I've been wrestling with for three years, and something will go there at some point! But will that happen in 2011? I won't resolve to do it, that's for sure. 0 for 2.

Next up was to fix this @$!# border. Success!

('David' phlox and purple hyssop was a great combo in the front sunny area.)

I widened the border (with some not-insignificant sod removal), planted a bunch of stuff, had seedlings survive, and it should be even better next year.

('Bon Bon' cosmos came through for a late summer show.)

Yeah for me! 1 for 3

Lastly I resolved to grow more vegetables. Done! 2 for 4

OK, so a .500 record isn't too bad! Time to resolve to do more next year, but I'll get to that in another post soon...

What did you resolve to do this past year in the garden? Did you accomplish your goals?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: The Storm 3090 XP Snow Thrower

Here in Chicagoland we're in the interlude between snow storms that are assuring us a very, very white Christmas. So earlier this week gave us a chance to try out our new Troy Bilt Storm 3090 XP snow thrower, which I won from a contest hosted by Garden Girl. (FTC Disclaimer: Obviously I received this item free of charge.)

I entered this contest really for the sake of my husband, affectionately called Tech Support, because we have never had a working snow thrower and shoveling almost always becomes his responsibility. I just don't like shoveling and will avoid it at all costs unless we're getting a blizzard during the day and I have no choice but to shovel the snow lest he not be able to get his car in the driveway by the time he's home from work. So I felt that since I stick him with this chore all the time, the least I could do was try to win a new snow thrower.

And did I! This snow thrower is huge and it has more features than my car. It's a two-stage snow thrower that clears a 30" swath. It's got power steering (yes, a snow thrower with power steering), plus heated hand grips and a headlight. Tech Support was the one to use the 3090 XP a couple days ago when it snowed, and here is the gist of his assessment:

It was surprisingly maneuverable for its size. It started easily and made quick work of our driveway, sidewalk, and part of the neighbor's driveway too. We always have deep snow pile up at the end of our driveway because the concrete dips, but the 3090 XP had no trouble clearing it. Above second gear it moves really fast and can get away from you a little, so be aware when moving into a higher gear. He did not try out the heated hand grips (!) so I have no info on those. And it was very loud, like the sound of a really big lawn mower.

Here's a direct quote: "Once you get the feel for its power, it runs easy. Make sure you start in a lower gear and work your way up to find your comfort level."

What about assembly, you may ask? It took him about two hours start to finish but that was because he didn't read the directions (I'm not joking, that really did happen). He admitted that had he read about the certain part of the assembly that messed him up, it would have taken much less time and been a lot simpler. So the lesson is read the directions if you get this machine.

All in all, Tech Support felt (and I agreed) that this is a top of the line snow thrower and we're thrilled to have it. I'd like to thank Garden Girl and Troy Bilt for hosting such a generous giveaway.

And Merry Christmas to everyone!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book Review: Energy-Wise Landscape Design

This is a woefully late review, but since I have nothing blooming and can't participate in Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, I figured this is a perfect time for a better late than never post.

I won Energy-Wise Landscape Design: A New Approach for your Home and Garden, by Sue Reed, in a contest on Garden Rant way back in August (FTC Disclaimer: yes, this book was free). I immediately liked the organizations that is based around how to arrange your landscape, how to design it, how to construct it, and how to generate energy. A couple of years ago I attended a natural landscaping symposium and I saw a presentation by Pat Armstrong of Prairie Sun Consultants (who for some reason doesn't have a website!!) about how she and her husband designed their home using passive solar approaches, natural evergreen windbreaks, and one of the most outstanding prairie restorations in northern Illinois. I was already growing many native plants in my garden, but I was inspired by the holistic energy conservation embodied in this house design. I was hoping to learn some specific ways to incorporate these types of ideas into my own existing home landscape by reading Reed's book.

Unfortunately for me, most of the methods in this book are best applied to new construction. Let me emphasize that Reed's ideas and tips are sensible, easy to understand and would certainly accomplish energy efficiency in every sense of the term. From shading your home in summer to capturing the sun's heat in winter, from using water efficiently to building environmentally friendly structures, Reed covers every conceivable aspect of landscape design (plants, hardscape, buildings, energy generators, I mean everything). But the vast majority of these actions are not applicable on a small, established suburban lot like mine.

For example, I can't significantly change the way that mature trees shade my house at inopportune times because many of them are on my neighbors' properties. Removing and redesigning my driveway is also not spatially feasible on a 1/4-acre lot. Of course none of this is Reed's fault nor does it make her book less valid in its knowledge; it just means it's less useful for those of us on typical suburban lots.

In general, Reed's discussions of native and regionally appropriate plants are cogent and informative for people unaccustomed to gardening with natives. She explains the ecological value of native plants, how to match plants to soil conditions and ways to reduce or eliminate your lawn. Significantly, she addresses how to do this without estranging neighbors or running afoul of community regulations (an ever-present worry here in the Suburban Wasteland).

However, I was disappointed in her discussion of rain gardens. It was too vague to be directly helpful to someone trying to plant one, yet at the same time the diagrams she included showed numerous layers of materials that are not at all necessary for a functioning rain garden. She had crushed stone, rain garden soil mix (whatever that is), and geotextile fabric included in two diagrams, and I can tell you from personal experience that a rain garden will work just fine without any of those. Had I been new to the concept of rain gardens, seeing these complex diagrams and the generalized discussions warning of it becoming "a big mushy puddle in the landscape" I would have been turned off right away. And that is exactly the opposite of what this book should be doing. Now, I fully agree that rain gardens need to be designed and planted intelligently and safely, but the idea here should be to encourage, especially for something like installing water-absorbing plants, which is way easier and cheaper than ripping out and replacing your driveway.

In short, if you're buying property and building a new home and you care about energy conservation and environmentally friendly construction, this book will be an invaluable guide to developing your home landscape. If you live on a relatively small lot and/or have an established homesite, there is less that will be directly useful to you.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Lessons from the Vegetable Garden, Year 1

Gardening is a continual learning experience, which is part of what makes it fun, and as winter settles in I am mulling over what I've learned from my first year of growing a full-on vegetable garden, though small it may be.

Of course every year is different so what was a success one summer can be a failure the next (just look at the difference in tomato conditions from the late blight of dreary 2009 to the parched heat of 2010). But, there are a few things I've taken away that I think will transcend the fickleness of weather.

1. Mulch, stupid!
I've been over this before, so I won't rehash it here. I have taken Garden Girl's advice about leaf mold for mulch and have a nice, thick blanket of shredded leaves on the veggie bed as we speak. Whether it's this or straw or grass clippings, there will be mulch next year.

2. Start some vegetables from seed.
Maybe that seems obvious to others, but I was concerned about lanky, weak seedlings thanks to my humble set-up and lack of a place for proper grow lights. So I direct sowed everything (except the peppers and tomatoes which were purchased beyond the seedling phase). Overall, this was a success. But I read an illuminating post by Michele on Garden Rant concerning broccoli. Her post actually concerns all crucifers (cabbage et al.), and ironically her epiphany was the opposite of mine, or rather to direct sow her broccoli.

But the reason I say this was illuminating was that this post made me realize my broccoli was bolting, which was not something I ever thought of broccoli doing. Lettuce, spinach, cilantro, sure, these plants bolt and I know how to deal with it. But I was stumped by my lovely broccoli heads inexplicably blooming with yellow flowers just a day or two before I intended to harvest them. The broccoli was probably the most popular veggie grown here this year and I intend to increase it next year. So what to do about the flowering, which of course is the same as any other plant bolting (i.e., flowering and becoming inedible due to summer heat)?

Michele's post highlighted the problem of broccoli reaching maturity in the heat of midsummer. So the obvious solution is to not have the broccoli plants reaching maturity at that time. Instead, I will start seedlings indoors so that they reach maturity in June or by early July, hopefully before the real dog days set in, while also continuing to direct sow seeds around Memorial Day or 4th of July so that the second batch reaches maturity after the heat of August. See, this is why it's great to read garden blogs...

3. Grow fewer things.
That may sound strange but with my compressed space it's a must. I need to grow fewer things better rather than many things poorly. Just as I am trying to grow more broccoli (big hit with me and the whole family, have good ideas on how to improve), I need to cut back on squashes and not just because they were a total failure this year (which they were) but because they take up too much space if I'm to grow more broccoli. Both those types of plants need space, so prioritize I must.

(Squashes and broccoli duke it out)

Similarly, I know I want more peppers and tomatoes but things need to be moved around so the peppers get more sunlight than they did this year. So things like onions will probably lose out (except for green onions which I can probably squeeze in). That small space has proven it's productive beyond its stature, but there's only so much I can ask of one 9'x3' rectangle.

4. Use better tomato cages.
I skimped last year thanks to budgetary and time concerns. At my favorite local garden center the only tomato cages in the whole place were those cone-shaped ones you always see--exactly the kind my mom warned me against. And while I knew she was right and said as much, I was too cheap and hurried to order good ones online or try another store, so I grabbed the flimsy cones and regretted it from June onward. No more! Decent, sturdy, square-shaped tomato cages will be worth the slight extra cost, and now I know to get them in advance of mid-May, when my seedlings are sitting there and I'm feeling pressed for time.

(Tomato cages being overwhelmed, and this was not the worst of it)

So what did you learn in your garden this year (vegetable or otherwise)? What else should I know that I've not mentioned here?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

(the remnants of) Wildflower Wednesday

It is officially cold here. I hesitate to say it's officially winter because of course it is not, but it feels like it now, with temperatures having plunged to the 20s in the last couple days.

Not surprisingly the wildflowers are gone but the remnants of many of them are here, still looking textural, and likely to be even more so once it snows.

The goldenrods have great seedheads, I think. Above is the spiky, almost barbed-looking seedheads of zig-zag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)...

...and here is my new favorite, elm-leaved goldenrod (S. ulmifolia), which are retaining their drooping, shooting-star-like habit but now with fuzzy seeds.

Big-leaved asters (Eurybia macrophylla) are nearly as exuberant as they were with actual blooms.

The tall coreopsis (C. tripteris) lived up to its name this year; it's nearly five feet high! Its spent foliage and flowerheads are towering over the spent asters, zizias, pale purple coneflowers and sedums below (which are mostly covered by leaves at this point).

Leaving the seeds and spent foliage is of course good for any birds and other wildlife looking for food and shelter throughout our cold Midwestern winters. And it provides me with something to look at other than the hated (but grudgingly admitted, useful in winter) yew bushes. For more wildflowers this Wednesday, including some that are probably still blooming, visit Gail at Clay and Limestone. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bloom Day: In defense of a mum

Like many gardeners, I'm not a big fan of mums. I really can't stand them as rounded, fuzzy meatball-like monocultures in garish shades of yellow and orange found seemingly at every site of public landscaping and too many home gardens as well. But a few years back when my garden was little more than a few new native forbs, I succumbed to the temptation of buying a couple late-season mums. They were in fuschia and purple, and one promptly died with the frost. But the other has held on, and even in its mostly shady location, it blooms in rich purple, with ray-like stems that are anything but rounded and meatball-esque.

I'm considering moving it to a sunnier spot near the purple sedums I planted this year (if they survived, that is). Maybe I'm withholding my disdain because there's just one, but this mum is an exception to prove the rule and it's welcome here, especially since it's the only thing blooming this year in November.

To see what else is blooming in gardens all over the world, visit Carol at May Dreams Garden.

The trouble with overwintering that sometimes the plants can't handle it!

I decided to overwinter my three 'La Crema' sages from Hort Courture because I really liked their variegated foliage in shades of deep green and light lime. They thrived in the heat and drought and complemented the rest of my salvias quite well. I'd like to divide these next spring and use them to cover the bare ankles of my 'David' phloxes in the front border, but will they make it through the winter??

I fully expected many dropped leaves and some stress as they went from the very bright sun of the garden to the much-less-sunny front window, so I gave them a good two weeks in their pots sitting on the patio to help with the adjustment. So much for that idea. They've been shedding leaves left and right, plus new growth is shriveling on one of them.

In my care to not overwater them I think I may have let them dry out too much (possibly contributing to all those shriveled, dropped leaves), but now I find myself in the typical conundrum of "am I killing them with too much or too little? Should I water or let them dry out?!"

All is not lost, of course, There is minimal new growth on all three plants, and I still have recourse to more drastic measures such as taking cuttings and rooting them in water. And if all else fails, hey, they were free so it's not the end of the world. But this is why overwintering is so challenging! Especially after getting spoiled last year by the world's best, easiest, most gardener-friendly coleus.

How do you get your tender perennials/annuals through the winter?

Disclaimer: Yes, I received these plants as a free trial. And a trial they are right now!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

English People Being Cool

Check out this video of Todmorden's urban food production in the UK.

For anyone interested in urban renewal through community gardens, this is a prime example. Unfortunately there's not too many details on how the gardens get watered and how particular city ordinances were addressed or overcome (although the topic is broached).

Look for fascinating use of a cemetary, purple cauliflower, and squashes that looked way better than mine.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Still Blooming

I'm pleased to say there are blooms to share for October Bloom Day, hosted by Carol of May Dreams Gardens.So without further ado...

Of course there is a mum. I'm not a huge fan of these plants but I really like the color of this one.

The Bon-Bon cosmos are still going strong...

...and my dianthus is randomly reblooming.

In the shady part of the front, the coleus I nurtured from seed and through the winter last year is still putting out flower stalks.

I've decided to let this plant go with the frost this year and try some new varieties next year, but I'm certainly going to miss it!

The elm-leaved goldenrods are finishing up their last little blooms...

...and elsewhere the 'Tojen' toad lilies are making a valiant stand against the drought conditions that really slowed down their flowering, compared to last year.

These passalongs from Mr. McGregor's Daughter are in possibly the most challenging place in my garden, dry shade under a silver maple, and yet they've been bravely blooming as much as possible for about a month now.

And lastly, the only asters I still have (sort of) blooming are these Short's aster (S. shortii), a fairly rare native of savanna woodlands. I planted these in June and they've bloomed happily all through late summer and fall, and they're a great purple. I'm very happy about this addition!

What's still blooming in your garden?

Monday, October 4, 2010

MVP 2010

The baseball postseason is about to start, and again the White Sox are nowhere to be found (thanks to the Minnesota Twins ripping their hearts out and showing them to them before they died). Despite that disappointment, I realize that this time of the season really shows us who are the elite players, the ones who have those intangible qualities of coming through in the clutch, leadership, and making others around them play better.

What does this have to do with gardening? Well, this is the garden's postseason too. At this point the plants that are still blooming, or whose performances remain in vivid memory, are those that held up through adversity, through challenging conditions all summer, and were the best that the garden had to offer. Now they're facing new foes like light frost conditions and shortened daylight, but the elite plants keep blooming and keep adding interest.

That's why this is the time to choose the season MVP, the Most Valuable Plant.

I'm pleased to say it was a difficult decision, thanks to the exemplary performance by so many members of the team. The nodding wild onions (Allium cernuum),

cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis),

and Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) were all impressive, despite a drenched start to the summer and then extreme heat and drought conditions later on.

The habaneros and chili peppers were quite possibly the stars of the vegetable garden, and I am still harvesting and storing loads of hot peppers.

And the nectaroscordums earlier this summer were so cool that I ordered 10 more, which should be arriving any day now. At times 2010 felt like the Year of the Onion around here (until my actual vegetable onions set flowers and crapped out in terms of producing anything edible; however, the green onions were fabulous).

The asters have had a standout year, particularly the smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve), which barely survived last year.

I'd have to give these the "Comeback Player of the Year" award, not quite the MVP.

The elm-leaved goldenrod is without a doubt one of the best additions to my garden in the past few years. Planted only this June, these little goldenrods have settled in and bloomed like crazy since August.

It's now getting close to mid-October and they're barely showing signs of fatigue. It was hard to NOT call them the MVP, but really a more accurate award is Rookie of the Year.

So who was the best of the best? Really there's only one who deserves the title: the 'David' phloxes.

These beauties burst into bloom in midsummer and still (again, it's October) have flowers clinging on, an unprecedented show of strength and longevity, particularly in light of not only this year's drought (which started right around when they began blooming), but also my repeated, extended absences from the garden. Abuse from Mother Nature and neglect from the gardener could not stop them! Granted, there were some flopping issues, but considering the above-mentioned factors and their vigorous blooming in spite of it all, I was not inclined to let that remove them award contention.

Their white flowers added a brightness to the garden that was greater than their size or hue would suggest. And, in true MVP fashion, they made the purple hyssops and pink cosmos around them look even more colorful. Most impressive, in my garden where powdery mildew has decimated too many flowers (and is still doing so to my Monardas), this mildew-resistant cultivar has lived up to the hype.

Congrats, 'David' phloxes! You are the 2010 Most Valuable Plant(s)!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What's wrong with my squashes? Part II

OK, so I have given up on actually harvesting any squashes this year, but what is going on here?? I have pulled out all but one of the squash vines because they all looked very similar to this one.

The leaves look almost like there's powdery mildew or some other kind of fungus on them, and they've yellowed and withered. This is (I believe) Trombetta D'Albenga, but all the other varieties suffered the same fate. This vine has stayed around this long because it actually began producing squash, but before they suddenly rotted before maturing.

So my question is, is this an infestation like vine borer or some other bug? I haven't seen any bugs crawling around but with all my traveling this summer I definitely could have missed some evidence. Or, is this a disease of some kind that will restrict my squash growing for the next few years?

If you have any idea of the identity and whereabouts of this criminal, please leave your information in a comment! And if this is a disease, should I not grow squashes/cucumbers for three years? Help!!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wildflower Wednesday--The Usual Suspects

At this point in the season, the prairie plants native to my corner of Illinois are in various stages of setting seed. Grasses like big and little bluestem and prairie dropseed are in their full glory (and I'm sorry I don't have my little bluestem and prairie dropseed pictured here; I blame the massive storms that hit late yesterday and interrupted my blog photography).

The inflorescences--grasses' version of flowers--are at their peak. Coneflowers, Joe-Pye weed and coreopsis have finished (or are almost finished) flowering. The prairie is in the later stages of its zenith and is full of textures.

The wildflowers that are still in bloom here are the usual suspects for this region: goldenrods and asters. My elm-leaved goldenrods are short, but they're blooming so brightly you can see them from the street. (These pictures were not taken at night, just in the gloom before an impending storm.)

The zig-zag goldenrod is already showing spent flowers and hints of seeds...

...much like the big-leaved aster, which bloomed a lot longer this year than last year.

And my smooth blue asters have made a remarkable comeback this year after some mildew issues last year.

They are a beautiful send-off to a hot, droughty, occasionally soggy, and very vibrant summer!

Wildflower Wednesday is brought to you by Gail of Clay and Limestone--go visit to see more beautiful native plants!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bloom Day, Finally!

For the first time since June I am in the garden for Bloom Day! And I'm quite happy about it because there are still a notable number of blooms to be seen. Maybe the cooler temperatures are prolonging some flowers that might have wilted in the continual heat.

The Bon Bon Cosmos from Renee's Garden are looking the best they have all season! Where have these robust blooms been? Maybe the site conditions aren't the greatest for these flowers, but this is a classic case of better late than never.

The 'David' phlox is still going strong although I can feel that the end may be near. It's been quite a show from these flowers this year. I'm a little irritated by the fact that they both have flopped all summer, but the flowers have been gorgeous even from their lowered level! And with the heat and dryness followed by intermittent torrential downpours, it's kind of hard to blame the stems for suffering a little. Considering the challenging conditions this year, we may have a candidate for Most Valuable Plant here.

The elm-leaved goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia) is turning out even better than I had hoped!

I love how its flowers trail off the plant like a comet's tail, and the yellow perfectly complements the yellow centers of the big-leaved asters (Eurybia macrophylla) behind them.

And speaking of goldenrods, the zig-zag goldenrod (S. flexicaulis) is in its full glory...

...with the great blue lobelia finishing up...

...and speaking of asters, the smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) have exploded within the past couple days!

They're looking much better than last year, probably due to the sunny, dry conditions. And they've flowered early enough to catch the tall coreopsis (C. tripteris) still in bloom!

This timing doesn't happen every year and I love when it does! It's nice to have the yellow and blue combo repeated a couple times in this border.

My containers were suffering from my absence, so I replaced the wilted petunias, calibrachoa and celosia with simple pansies. Here's how the petunia replacement looks now:

What's notable is that the other fillers in these containers (second one not pictured) haven't missed a beat, and now they're looking as nice as ever!

Also blooming but not pictured: Tricyrtis 'Tojen'; squash flowers, the random unnamed rose and a couple fading coneflowers. For more Bloom Day posts, see Carol at May Dreams Garden!

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